On Saturday at the Kennedy Avenue stop on Broadway, Nick Benzer boarded the VIA 11A bus like he does every day, for his 30-minute ride toward his job as a line cook at Bliss. As he found a spot near the rear doors, Benzer was greeted by the dulcet soprano voice of Libby Wardlaw-Maddin, singing a Nathan Felix composition titled Adagietto.
“This has never happened,” Benzer said of becoming an audience to opera on his usual bus ride. His five days a week on the 11A, which runs from the McNay Art Museum through the heart of downtown to the Blue Star Arts Complex, are normally less eventful. “Not many people come on the VIVA Culture Bus,” he said, “so it’s pretty cool to see this.”
During the Museum Month of October, VIA offers all passengers a free ride on Saturdays, but today’s riders received a special bonus. Felix approached the McNay about the possibility of a bus concert, and they agreed on the spot. The San Antonio Museum of Art, Blue Star Contemporary, and VIA soon got on board. On Saturday, Felix gathered a troupe of 30 musicians and singers to mount the buses, starting at both McNay and Blue Star locations at 1 p.m. and moving in opposite directions, to sing a selection of songs and improvisations that included dance, a costumed astronaut, and a release of white doves at the Maverick Park stop.
As the 11A rolled down Broadway, sopranos Audrey Ballinger and Brooke Holyoke took solo turns, singing Rainfalls in May and a selection from the musical Carousel, respectively. Holyoke and Felix chose the song to bridge his own lyrical compositions, in part because its sense of love and longing made a good match with Felix’s lyrics.
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark, Holyoke sang, interrupted by a loud, robotic bus announcement that riders were approaching the Alamo.
Of Felix’s in-the-wild approach to opera, performer Catherine Rothrock said, “I like that he thinks big and risky like this.” Rothrock, also a composer, began an improvised dance at the Poco Street stop. Once finished, she slid into a seat at the back of the bus and assumed the role of any other commuter, headphones in her ears.
Performers face many challenges at any venues, including crowd noise, inattentive audiences, nervousness, and other distractions. Felix’s performing group, collectively titled From Those Who Follow The Echoes, confronted the start-and-stop awkward motion of the bus, the background noise of air vents and engines, and close proximity to the audience rare for stage performers.
One unexpected challenge confronted the From Those Who Follow The Echoes troupe as the VIVA buses wended their way through crowded downtown traffic. Felix could never have predicted such a confluence, but after Wardlow-Maddin sang a lyric from Adagietto,
Before you let go
The will to go on
Has drowned in the sea
Tired and old
Jaded and scarred
If I ended it here
Everyone would care, reports came in that a jumper at a hotel had drawn emergency responders downtown, snarling traffic and causing buses to be rerouted. Though that scene ended in tragedy, Felix’s undaunted performers adjusted and completed their rounds.
“Opera on a Bus” by From Those Who Follow The Echoes proved that music can change the experience of time and space. For one overcast October day, a VIA ride was measured not by stops and fares, but by musical measures, rhythmic phrases, and melody lines.
Click through the gallery below to see more moments from the performance.
Public transportation commuters would normally expect to be absorbed in their self-contained world, listening to podcasts, texting friends, or catching up on a book or the day’s news, half-attentive to the action outside. Felix and From Those Who Follow The Echoes changed the dynamic for passengers, using the power of live performance to bring audience members together in celebration of the unexpected.
Adam Tutor blew a wistful alto saxophone melody as the 11A rolled into its final northerly stop at the McNay. As riders disembarked, Tutor intoned while gesturing towards the doors, “Be gentle with yourselves as you return to this world.” Tellingly, after lending unusual magic and mystery to street scenes outside the bus windows, Tutor added, smiling, “From the other one.”